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We can — and should — pay for the loss and damage caused by climate change

21 September 2022

The UK Government should lead efforts to create a fund for communities worst affected, argues Olivia Graham


Floods in the city of Mingora, Pakistan, in August

Floods in the city of Mingora, Pakistan, in August

CLIMATE CHANGE used to be a problem of the future, one to be avoided for our children and grandchildren. The lack of action to cut carbon emissions, however, means that the climate crisis has already hit millions of people around the world, most acutely in places that have done the least to cause it.

For them, the climate crisis is not just something that their children will suffer: it has meant that their houses have been destroyed by cyclones, their land has been lost to rising sea levels, or their farms have turned to desert because of drought and unbearable heat. This is known as “loss and damage”, and securing compensation and support for it has become an important new front in the battle to deliver climate justice to those who need it most.

This Thursday (22 September) is Loss and Damage Action Day in the UK. It is an opportunity to urge our government to support the communities around the world who are most affected by the climate crisis.

Loss and damage, as a concept, might sound technical and complicated. But, in its essence, loss and damage is very simple: it is the idea that we should be paying for what we have damaged.

SADLY, I have witnessed the impact of loss and damage first hand. I began my working life as a young volunteer in a very rural part of Kenya. I spent a decade after that working in other parts of Africa with refugees and people displaced by war or drought, studying pastoral production systems and land use, and becoming more and more aware of the relationship between people and the natural world on which we all depend.

In the Horn of Africa, where I spent four years, pastoralists, whose livelihoods depend on the animals they herd, used to expect a major drought every seven to ten years. Now, it is more likely to be every three to five years, as the rains become increasingly unreliable and droughts last for much longer. Currently, the situation there has got so bad that it has pushed millions to the brink of famine (News, 29 July).

The impact of climate change is clear: we see it on the news and read about it every day. We watch in horror as one third of Pakistan disappears underwater (News, 9 September); as fires destroy homes across Europe, the United States, and Australia; as droughts in Africa leave thousands starving and the carcasses of their animals lying where they fell. Real people, real loss, real damage.

But a key injustice of climate change is that it is the developing countries which are worst affected, the ones that did virtually nothing to create the crisis. Unlike the UK and other rich countries, they didn’t develop their economies by burning large quantities of fossil fuels, which is what has created the climate crisis.

As one of the biggest historic emitters, we must accept the responsibility for the destruction that we are causing. If we are serious about taking responsibility for our actions, then the UK should be leading efforts to ensure that climate wrongs are righted through an international loss and damage fund to support the affected communities.

THE story of Zacchaeus the chief tax collector encapsulates the issue. When Zacchaeus became a follower of Jesus, he repented, but he didn’t just say sorry to all those he had harmed during his years of corruption. His repenting involved giving half his money to the poor and repaying four-fold all those whom he had cheated. Like Zacchaeus, nations in the global North have got rich at the expense of some of the world’s poorest people; so what does repenting mean for us? Simply saying sorry to those suffering from loss and damage is not going to cut it. “Sorry” is just a word. We can, and should, make amends.

Repentance is a core component of the Christian faith. It is about showing that we really are sorry by what we then do. A Church of England prayer for absolution reads: “The almighty and merciful Lord, grant us pardon and forgiveness of all our sins, time for amendment of life, and the grace and strength of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

It is a distressing thing to know that we in the UK are causing suffering to our brothers and sisters around the world. This is not in line with the teaching of Jesus to love our neighbour. Of course, we can ask for forgiveness, but the time for amendment of life is here. We need both to stop causing suffering to others and to pay for what we have broken — to pay for the loss and damage that we have caused.

Like many others, I communicate with bishops and churches in the Anglican Communion. I am immensely struck by the stories of their people’s resilience and courage in the face of suffering and hardship, as their lives and livelihoods are affected by climate change.

The loss and the damage that they are experiencing are real. The Church is the body of Christ. When one part suffers, we all suffer. The lived experience of our sisters and brothers across the globe compels us, as Christians, to be at the forefront of urging the Government to take its climate responsibilities seriously, and to push for a loss and damage fund to be created at the COP27 UN Climate talks in Egypt, in November.

The Rt Revd Olivia Graham is the Bishop of Reading.

For more information about Loss and Damage Action Day, visit www.makepolluterspay.co.uk

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